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Modern Parenthood

Social media monitoring: Is it good or bad parenting?

Social media monitoring for your kids is becoming easier, thanks to new child-tracking apps for parents. Striking a balance between trusting and protecting your child's online activity may not be so easy.

By Guest Blogger / October 10, 2012

Social media monitoring and surveilling your child's online activities requires a balance. Xavier Schmidt of Menlo Park has his picture taken by his parents outside Facebook's headquarters in Menlo Park, California, the night before the company's IPO launch, May 17, 2012.

Reuters Photo/Beck Diefenbach

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"Reflecting on a cellphone app developer’s claim, I’m thinking that tracking our kids’ movements, moment by moment, isn’t the best way to enhance “family awareness.” Those are the words of Chris Hull, CEO of the company that developed the Life360 tracking app, in an interview for Time. Is that “awareness” as in “surveillance”? Oddly, Time interpreted Hull’s reference to family awareness as “familial communication,” a stretch the app marketer doesn’t even make.

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Guest Blogger

Anne Collier is editor of NetFamilyNews.org and co-director of ConnectSafely.org, a Web-based interactive forum and information site for teens, parents, educators, and everybody interested in the impact of the social Web on youth and vice versa. She lives in Northern California and has two sons.

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Here’s what Canada’s premier media-literacy organization, MediaSmarts.ca in Ottawa, found in its research about digital-age “family awareness”:

“The parents we spoke with were beleaguered by fear of danger and exhausted from the burden of constant vigilance. Although the exact nature of [the] danger is poorly defined, many parents told us that surveillance is now equated with good parenting, and that the days of trusting their children and providing them with space to explore the world and make mistakes are long gone” (linked to here). I so agree with MediaSmarts.ca’s co-director Jane Tallim that surveillance “runs counter to the mutual trust, confidence and communication between parents and their kids that is so essential to helping children develop the skills they need for digital life.” That’s the foundation for safety that lasts way beyond childhood.

What about a call or text?

Sure there are times, such as after a natural disaster (Life360′s developers invoke Hurricane Katrina in their corporate story) or if someone’s being stalked, when family members need to keep track of each other. But most of the time, is it not enough to call or text? What kind of message are we sending our kids when tracking their every move? How do they respond?

Actually, MediaSmarts found that constant monitoring can have the opposite effect parents are seeking: “The teenagers who did share the details of their lives with their parents were the ones who were not routinely monitored. Trust in this case was mutual,” indicating that “monitoring alone may work against open family dialogue.” So it’s a balance we need to strike. I love the way media professor and parent Henry Jenkins puts it: We need to watch their backs, not look over their shoulders.

Finding the right balance is never easy, but it’s good to know that constant tracking hardly helps us find and maintain it. And if the motivation is fear, what impact does that have? It could make a child more fearful or send the message that it’s okay to let fear rule. It could also reduce our credibility and parent-child communication (if the child feels the fear is irrelevant or overwrought) and send a kid into stealth mode or into seeking workarounds, which is all too easy online and with portable, pocket-size devices. And, of course, delivers exactly what marketers of surveillance tools are looking for: a bigger market.

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